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Shakespeare Tavern’s latest ‘Works’ lacks a certain spark

How many times can a person hear the same joke and still find the punchline quite as funny as it was the first time around? Now in its sixth incarnation since the company’s original 2006 production, Atlanta Shakespeare’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” is a mashup/sendup of all 37 of the Bard’s classic plays, frantically performed by three actors in a mere 90 minutes or so.

As if there were any remaining doubt at this late date, there seems to be no such thing as a law of diminishing returns at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, where for more than 20 years artistic director Jeffrey Watkins’ troupe has rarely met a Shakespeare play they couldn’t milk for a laugh — and that even goes for the famous tragedies, too. When one of the co-stars in “The Complete Works” wonders whether their show is “doing justice” to Shakespeare, another retorts, “Hey, this is the Tavern. The comedies aren’t half as funny as the tragedies. Just do it.”

The company refers to its approach as “original practice,” and it’s marked by a lot of (often incongruous or anachronistic) “direct address” to the crowd. As long as the Tavern’s thriving fan base keeps eating it up and coming back for more, who is a theater critic to complain that its particular style of “just doing it” wears thin over time, or to make note of another quip from “The Complete Works” about pandering to an “intellectually flaccid modern audience”?

Even in small doses, applying broad humor to a more-or-less traditional staging of, say, “Romeo and Juliet” or “Macbeth” can feel bogus. In the irreverent madcap context of “The Complete Works,” of course, it’s perfectly placed and entirely appropriate to the material, which is one reason I responded quite favorably to the Tavern’s 2006 production.

As with any remounted version of a show you’ve already seen and liked, much of the initial thrill is gone upon a second viewing. This latest rendition of the play (co-written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield) is directed by Andrew Houchins and features Nicholas Faircloth, Matt Felten and Matt Nitchie.

The longest stretches of the script are devoted to “R&J” and “Hamlet.” In shorter takes, “Titus Andronicus” is told as an episode of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Othello” as a Beastie Boys-inspired rap number, and “Troilus and Cressida” as a pretentious bit of performance art (replete with balloons). All of the interchangeable romantic comedies are rolled into one, all of the history plays reduced to a football game. Throughout, an inordinate amount of Silly String substitutes for blood.

The pacing is steady enough and there’s no shortage of energy among the quick-changing cast. Still, despite a couple of unpredictable audience-participation scenes, this “Complete Works” lacks a certain sense of spontaneity. In the original production, you almost got the impression the actors were making it up as they went along. Here, everything comes across as more practiced and routine.

Those who haven’t seen the show before won’t know the difference. They may be in for a bigger treat, while the rest of us might be content with the memories of our own first times.

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